Teaching Resource: The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning by David Pace

Picture of stairs through a garden
Photo by Slawek K on Unsplash

I’m not sure where I first heard about this text, but the paradigm’s focus on disciplinary bottlenecks intrigued me and seemed reflective of a great deal of interest at Middlebury in connection to helping students to think like a …. scientist, historian, educator, economist, etc. The decoding paradigm relies on three assumptions:

  1. Learning is focused on disciplinary processes
  2. We must concentrate on what students need to be able to do
  3. Experts are not always able to identify the basic necessary tasks in a disciplinary field because those processes have become automatic to them

The decoding process is broken up into seven steps:

“Identify a bottleneck

Define the mental operations needed to get past the bottleneck

Model these tasks explicitly

Give students practice and feedback

Motivate the students and deal with potential emotional blocks

Assess how well students are mastering the mental operations

Share what you have learned about your students’ learning”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 6)

A lot of what is covered in this texts reflects what we already know to be effective practices to improve student learning, however I found the chapters on identifying bottlenecks and dealing with students’ emotional blocks to provide some of the most transformative material.

Bottlenecks

Bottlenecks are those process areas where professors can predict that a majority of their students’ will get stuck. Pace makes the argument that:

“The mistakes that students make in our courses become gifts that can serve to increase our understanding of how to better teach our disciplines and even illuminate the deeper nature of those disciplines”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 26).

A key to identifying bottlenecks is focusing on what students need to be able to do, or the mental operations that a student must perform to complete a task within the discipline. These bottlenecks can be difficult for experts to identify, and Pace suggests decoding interviews to help hone in on the core of the difficulty that students are experiencing. The interview can begin with asking professors how they would get past the bottleneck that stumps their students. The interviewer will focus on breaking down the answer into a specific set of steps by asking follow up questions. 

Pace notes that bottleneck patterns that have emerged in multiple fields include: 

“Procedural problems

Missing steps

Transferring processes

Moving back and forth from models to concrete situations

Integration of details

Issues of scale

Procedures for knowledge generation”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 24 – 25).

Emotions

This chapter seemed particularly relevant given our current polarized political climate. It offered a great deal of guidance and suggestions to help professors be proactive in their management of student emotions to ensure that students are familiar with a process for objective engagement with content before they engage with information that may evoke an emotional and personal reaction.

“…what students learn in a college classroom may disrupt the once harmonious flow of opinions around the family dinner table. In some cases what they are studying may even be perceived as a betrayal of the family and the culture within which they have been raised”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 84 – 85)

In addition, students’ preconceived notions of how they believe a college classroom will function, and the ways in which they will need to study to be successful may come in direct conflict with the disciplinary ways of thinking that students need to acquire. Here again, a proactive approach to teaching students methods and practices that will benefit them in your class is a good way to head off or, at least dampen this reaction before it can occur. A great way to do this is by asking students to share with future students what they need to do to be successful in the class and including this content as a part of your syllabus for subsequent cohorts. 
Pace also emphasizes that professors should not dismiss either of these types of misconceptions. Instead, professors should help students to see these prior understandings as building blocks to new levels of learning.

TLDR;

This is a great read for any teacher who is very interested in developing disciplinary ways of thinking in their students. The text provides many examples and practical suggestions that break big ideas down into actionable steps. There is also a web site that compiles and summarizes much of the material into easily accessible chunks. 

What does instructional design look like? – Post #11 – The Wrap Up

This is the 11th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Meeting 11 was our first multi-day meeting week. During this session the team reviewed the list of questions and missing information compiled by Heather. Several items were placeholders for work that the faculty member was currently working on.

The team had a productive conversation about providing a means to make it easier for students to identify what work had been completed and what still needed to be done. It was determined that any available automated completion settings in Canvas could actually increase confusion, so the team settled on providing a Google sheet checklist that mirrored the components spreadsheet shared earlier in the course. The checklist was an optional support tool to help students familiarize themselves with a more self-directed learning environment. We are excited to collect feedback from students on this method to see if it is effective and helpful in the way that we hope it will be! (Initial feedback was VERY positive!)

At this meeting it was becoming apparent that the course design process was starting to draw to a conclusion which generated a sense of accomplishment in both team members. Although there were still a number of items we hoped to learn from the first participants in the course – we felt confident that we had done our best to try to anticipate sticky points and challenges and to mitigate those challenges.

As we wrapped up our final official meeting, we agreed to keep the lines of communication open, and Heather assured Anne that she would be available should any unexpected design concerns or questions arise.

Now we just had to wait for the start date — onward!

What does instructional design look like? – Post #10 – Beginning to Review Our Work

This is the 10th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

In this meeting we took the temp in terms of where we were in course development timeline and what additional work needed to be completed to get to our end point on time. Heather was able to do a thorough review of two modules so questions about those items were also addressed. The team revisited the checklist to confirm progress. We also submitted additional requests for assistance with:

  • Transcription of a recorded interview
  • Support for an in-person tech session
  • Help from a student intern to review course content 

In preparation for the next meeting Heather spent the following week working her way through the course and came up with the following list of outstanding questions and to-do items. We considered this our first copy edit review of the course content.

Questions

  1. Added links to assignment guideline docs from the About this Course grading section. – Is this ok?
  2. What would you like to do about the Quest activity? (This activity was designed to take students on an active tour of the course where they had to discover different info in the course.)
  3. Items at end of module 1 (This referred to additional content in draft format that were awaiting finalization of reading schedule.)
  4. Module 4 exit ticket – how do you want this to be submitted? (via Canvas assignment?)
  5. Consider suggesting to students that they start a new thread for each discussion group – Module 4 discussion
  6. Items at end of module 5 (This referred to additional content in draft format that were awaiting finalization of reading schedule.)
  7. Entrance ticket for module 7 is the assignment for module 6 – or is it supposed to be the wiki here? (Checking links is a crucial part of the final steps of hybrid course development.)

Needs to be done

  • Exit ticket for module 2
  • Add link to this reading in module 5 – Visualizing qualitative data in evaluation research. New Directions for Evaluation, 139, 53-71.
  • Figure out how the Storytelling with Data links and info (library resources) should be managed
  • Add transcript to interview page
  • Course tour video & transcript (for main page)
  • Add assignments into module view

What does instructional design look like? – Post #9 – Additional Resources & Backups

This is the 9th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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In between meetings 8 & 9 the team re-connected with the media development specialist to fine tune the workflow for how videos could be edited with the support and advice of the media specialist. Video will be used minimally in the course so the team did not believe it would take up a great deal of time to do this. The minimal use was intentional given the time frame for development and launch of the course.

During meeting 9 Anne shared challenges she was continuing to face with getting access to an ebook for the course. The library believed it would have this accessible by the time the course began, however the faculty member felt that until this was confirmed as well as the ability for multiple students to access the ebook at once, she was tied into developing a mirrored reading/resource list that could be used if this option fell through. The team decided that a good interim step would be to place additional readings into a “supplemental resources” section within each module so that the work of locating the resources would still benefit the course even if they were not used as the core texts. Together the team also brainstormed using this section as an invitation for students to suggest other resources that they found over the course term.

Lastly, the team discussed the way in which course development had migrated from the faculty member’s core documentation in Google Drive to content being added directly into Canvas. There was some concern about not having this content in a non-Canvas format so Heather shared some export options including the ePub export which (at the time of this writing) was still in beta. Heather tested out the export which included an epub and a corresponding zip file which included other files that had been uploaded to the Canvas site.

What does instructional design look like? Post #8 — Zooming!

This is the 8th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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During the session the team met with four other participants to test out the functionality of Zoom. Anne planned to use Zoom for a once-a-week in-person meeting with the course participants. Functionality that she hoped to test included how to raise hands, chat, share documents, break into break-out rooms, and return from the rooms. 

During the course of the testing we learned about the importance of logging into Zoom before entering the room. (Without logging in you won’t have the facilitator controls!) Also – Anne was pleased with the ease with which she was able to move between break out rooms to check in on conversations. 

During this session we also tried out using an external tool called PearDeck as a part of the Zoom session. After carefully reviewing the functionality against what was possible in Zoom, Anne decided that tools within Zoom would work best for the class’ needs.

By the end of the session Anne was feeling much more comfortable navigating in Zoom and managing the class through the interface. Heather used the session to construct a Zoom testing checklist to refer back to in future Zoom testing sessions with other faculty members. This process worked towards the Digital Pedagogy & Media group’s goal to systematize some functions of their work that would be repeated over the course of transitioning content into a new medium.

One last simple design task was integrating a link to Anne’s Zoom room into the side menu in Canvas. We did this using the redirect tool in Canvas. I’ve included a video tutorial below to explain how to do this. Please note that any external apps that require student interaction need to go through an ITS security review before they are used in the classroom.

How to use the redirect tool in Canvas

What does instructional design look like? Post #7 – Connecting across Distance

This is the 7th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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The first item on our agenda was to iron out details about the grading scheme and assignment category setups to make sure that they would function as Anne was expecting. We found that Canvas grading schemes work very well with traditional percentage ‘buckets’. Below is an example of percentage buckets, however please note these were not used for Anne’s course:

  • Papers = 20%
  • Exams (3) = 60%
  • Participation = 20%

However, faculty who are interested in offering extra credit, the opportunity to drop the lowest grade in a category, or any other adjustment that would not necessarily apply to the full class will not find this functionality within the Canvas gradebook. In these instances we suggest faculty use an outside tool for grade calculations. (DLINQ staff are happy to consult on this topic.)

The team also continued to discuss a weekly communication plan and Anne decided that using announcements would work well. Rather than preparing weekly communications ahead of time, Anne would prepare a template and would write the contents of the message as the course proceeded. Anne felt that this would provide the most flexibility which would be helpful since it will be her first time teaching this course. The team agreed that being able to respond to unexpected inquiries and questions in the weekly announcements would be the best experience for the students and would increase the effectiveness of this modality. Canvas would still allow us to set up multiple announcement messages ahead of time (based on the template) that could be adjusted (but not need to be created) on a week by week basis.

In the next week the team planned to collaborate on a Zoom testing session that would allow Anne to test out different functionalities that she hoped to use as a part of her synchronous sessions. Heather planned to incorporate the outline for this testing plan into a template that is being designed to help structure the development of hybrid course spaces. Some of the items to test included:

What does instructional design look like? Post #6 — The evolution of roles in project collaboration

This is the 6th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Kelly Sikkemaon Unsplash

At this point in the course development process the instructional designer role (Heather) had shifted to providing more general guidance and support while the faculty member (Anne) focused more intently on loading content into the Canvas course site. As such, Heather adjusted to follow the faculty member’s lead in terms of when the pair meant face-to-face via Zoom and what work took place asynchronously via email. 

Anne shared some grade scheme adjustments that needed to be made that the Heather planned to add to the course site after a few clarifying questions were answered. Questions had to do with how participation grades would be calculated on a weekly basis to clarify what items would be graded in Canvas vs. what items would be manually entered in the Canvas gradebook. View more information about how the Canvas gradebook works here.

In addition, Heather suggested coming up with a weekly communications plan that could actually be drafted prior to the start of the class. This concept had been discussed earlier in the development process, but the more extensive content creation provided a better mechanism for following through on this topic. The intention of the weekly communication would be to set up and reinforce the weekly course structure outlined in Canvas to try to avoid any confusion that might surface as the class schedule filled with assignments.

Anne also expressed a need to share assignment details much earlier than originally planned to help the students put all the pieces together — which resulted in some content reorganization. The faculty member was very comfortable with Canvas and completed all of the content edits for the week. Heather found that her time was being spent in a more advisory/clarification role at this point in the process vs. at the start of the project when design skills were most regularly used.

Moving forward the team anticipated meeting on a face-to-face basis more sparingly as needed and increasing the frequency of email or asynchronous communications moving forward so that we could use our time most efficiency.

What does instructional design look like? Post #5 – Utilizing Expertise in a Variety of Ways

This is the 5th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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This meeting occurred after the winter break so Anne had added a lot of materials to the course Canvas site which allowed me to review the sequencing and organization and provide feedback. My suggestions included adding sub headings to the modules page to delineate different groupings of activities and readings within each week. In addition, links to readings were embedded directly in the module page in addition to being embedded in a weekly overview page to both provide students with context for the readings and enable them to access them with fewer clicks in return viewings of the material.

Getting familiar with Zoom

The team also discussed scheduling a Zoom testing session to allow Anne to test out different functionalities in Zoom that would be used during the weekly in-person meetings including breakout rooms and screen sharing. The testing session was scheduled with members of the DLINQ team.

Video editing assistance

Lastly, we discussed Anne’s request to have assistance with video editing from a member of the DLINQ team. This request was submitted to the DLINQ leadership team for review and was approved. Heather suggested that the faculty member discuss captioning options with the media specialist to determine the best and most efficient workflow. 

Working with the Library

Lastly, Anne found her collaborative work with the library essential to helping her to put together readings for her students. Staff members were able to help her determine the best way to provide access to materials available in the collection.

What does instructional design look like? Post 4 – Creating a Pattern & Flow for the Course

This is the 4th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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Prior to this meeting the instructional designer reviewed the contents of module 2 and put together a listing of ideas for how the content could be conveyed. The agenda for meeting 4 included:

  1. Overall questions
    1. Consideration of a “flow for the week” (see details below)
    2. What is the grading structure for the course?
    3. How do you assess participation? (I wrote a blog post inspired by this discussion here.)
    4. Plan for synchronous meeting sessions 
    5. Zoom room link details for incorporation in Canvas site
  2. Check in on Module 1 Progress
  3. Discuss Module 2

This week’s discussion focused on the importance of creating a repeatable weekly course structure or flow that students can use to plan their time. We settled on the outline below:

  • Sunday – new module content (for week after the current week) is released and previous module assignments are due by 11:59 pm (not including discussion activities)
  • Sunday, Monday & Tuesday – Complete module reading and initial discussion prompt
  • Wednesday – Complete responses to online discussions
  • Thursday – Synchronous session online (via Zoom) from 4 – 6 pm
  • Friday & Saturday – Complete assignments to be submitted by 11:59pm Sunday evening.

This information was included on a page titled “About this Course” in the Canvas site under the heading “Structure and Time Commitment”. The professor was also able to share the grading scheme prior to the meeting which allowed me to incorporate this information into the About the Course page as well as create assignment groups to correspond with the different grading category percentages.

It was determined that the synchronous sessions would provide a time when the faculty member could address various topics in a more flexible format that would allow her to adjust and respond to student feedback that occurs earlier in the week through discussion forums, activities, and entrance tickets. The team also formalized the integration of the Zoom room into the Canvas site and discussed setting up a test scenario during j-term that would allow the faculty member to practice using breakout rooms and other Zoom room functionality.

Course content was not yet ready to share so the team decided to focus their work on getting as much of the course structure and repeatable components in place prior to the end of the year so that content could be loaded into the course relatively easily. This shifted the heavier time burden from the end of the year to the beginning of the year. After looking at my projected future workload, I explained that I would still be available to support Anne but since time was budgeted to be more heavily used in 2018, I could not ensure that other priorities might come online at the start of 2019. This conversation highlighted the importance of planning, time-lining, consistent communication, and expectation-setting when working collaboratively on course development projects. In the end, workload did not pose any problems moving forward, but given the unpredictability of each semester – it was important to have this conversation early so there were no surprises.

Anne planned out extensive curriculum development and loading over the course of the month of January and meeting times were set and confirmed. No outstanding action items were set for Heather as most of the outstanding work was to collect course content before additional design work could begin.

What does instructional design look like? Post 3 – Starting to build

This is the 3rd in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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Prior to the meeting Professor Anne Campbell was able to share an outline for the course which broke out course content into weekly modules with different content focuses. Based on this information I focused on pulling apart module 1 and trying to reconfigure the content using online learning components. This resulted in a group of ideas and questions that would serve as the focus of meeting 3. The agenda for meeting 3 was:

I.    Overall course questions

  1. When should modules be unlocked/viewable?Two weeks in advance of assignment dates.
  2. Are texts online or hard copy? – Both
  3. Home page view options – Learn more here. We decided to use the pages home page option with a link to weekly module format
  4. Academic honesty guidelines- We created an academic honesty quiz with references to policies at the institute. The Academic Integrity Tutorial is another option designed for Middlebury College undergraduate students.
  5. Support available to students – we built pages for library and technical support into the Canvas template for the course.
  6. Communication plan – we began to brainstorm a communication plan that used a set pattern from week to week

II.     Build Out Brainstorm of Module 1

  1. Heather shared ideas and solicited feedback about potential design

During the conversation the concept of entrance and exit tickets came up as a way to manage both formative and summative assessment based on weekly activities. We also discussed having assignments and activities build on one another so that students are given opportunities to refine their ideas and work in the course as they learn more.

Action items for the next meeting included:

  • Adding a introduction discussion forum to week 1 (Heather)
  • Add support materials to Canvas site (Heather)
  • Adjust reveal timing of modules (Heather)
  • Begin designing quest activity (Heather)
  • Collect and share course content (Anne)